Pulitzer prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, The Namesake, narrates three decades of the lives of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguly as they leave India and settle down in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1960’s.
Library Journal describes the novel as, “this poignant treatment of the immigrant experience, which is a rich, stimulating fusion of authentic emotion, ironic observation, and revealing details.” Booklist review says, “Lahiri's deeply knowing, avidly descriptive, and luxuriously paced first novel is equally triumphant as Interpreter of Maladies”
The newlyweds had an arranged marriage and now they must navigate life in a new land while still getting to know each other. Ashok is busy with his work at MIT and Ashima’s heart twinges with pangs of loneliness. She has an intense yearning for the people and the places she has left behind.
In the first chapter we see Ashima pregnant with her first child, craving a spicy Indian snack sold by street vendors on roadsides in Kolkata. She cannot find puffed rice, so she tries to recreate the snack using rice krispies cereal instead. Ashima feels that being a foreigner “is a sort of lifelong pregnancy -- a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts.''
Ashoke is a voracious reader, he reads while walking in crowded traffic too and his mother is convinced that he “would be hit by a bus or a tram, his nose deep in War and Peace. That he would be reading a book the moment he died” Her prophecy almost comes true as Ashoke is in a terrible train accident saved only because he was holding a copy of Nikolai Gogol’s book of short stories, pages of which fluttered and caught the attention of rescuers.
Ashoke names his son 'Gogol' as he realizes that “being rescued from that shattered train had been the first miracle of his life” and his baby “reposing in his arms” is the second.
Shakespeare’s quote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” does not really hold true. A name is an integral part of our identity. For young Gogol, struggling between the crossroads of Indian and American cultures, the added complication of having a Russian name truly confounds him and adds to his awkwardness. When some classmates mispronounce his name as 'Giggle' or 'Gargle', it adds to his misery as well.
Ashima adapts to her new home and the friendship of fellow transplanted Bengalis in the foreign land helps her adjust to a new life. Gogol has a sister named Shonali aka Sonia who is his friend and partner in crime. The family assimilates while pursuing the American dream and celebrates Thanksgiving and Christmas while living in a decent suburb.
Ashoke is an introvert and as much as he loves his family, he is not expressive and does not reveal to Gogol the significant story behind his name until much later. As soon as Gogol turns eighteen, he changes his name to Nikhil and immediately feels liberated like a newer and freer person who has shed the weight of his old life.
Gogol studies architecture at Yale and then works as an architect in New York. He has three relationships, the first with Ruth, the second with Maxine and then he marries Moushumi. Gogol and Moushumi have always distanced themselves from their Indian roots, rejecting any plans to marry within their race. When they unexpectedly hit it off on their first meeting, they feel happy that they are''fulfilling a collective, deep-seated desire'' on the part of their families. The love story of Gogol with each of the girls is beautifully described complete with how they meet, what draws them together, moments of love and passion and finally, heartbreak and disconnection.
I can completely identify with and relate to Ashima as my story is the same as hers. My husband and I had an arranged marriage too and we immigrated to America soon after. When she talks about her mother’s “salesmanship” in successfully ‘singing her praises’ to the groom’s family when their marriage was being arranged, when she remembers how the whole family came to the airport in India to wave them goodbye, I had familiar flashbacks from exactly similar experiences in my life.
My hometown Jamshedpur is mentioned twice in the novel and just seeing its name in print gave me a thrill. It is the city where Ashoke was headed to when he had his train accident. I have lived in Boston and I have lived in Kolkata for three years each and I love both of those cities.
Ashima goes on to work part time at a public library and her nick name is Monu. My name is Mona and I work in a public library too!
I could really connect to this book and my immersion in the character of Ashima was so complete that when an unexpected tragedy hits her, it upset me deeply. I had to close the book and put it down as I started crying uncontrollably. A little later, I resumed reading the book with a heavy heart.
There are thousands of Ashimas in America and on behalf of all of them I would like to thank Jhumpa Lahiri for creating this character, who in essence, is all of us.
This novel is not just a relatable read for immigrants, it is also an elegantly told family saga with universal themes; of love, of the profound relationship between a father and a son, of teenage angst, of feeling pulled by different worlds yet not completely belonging to either, of the unpredictability of life and relationships and of endings which are real and not always happily ever after.
Click on the book cover below to access this book in the Richland Library catalog.
The snack craved by Ashima in the novel is called Jhal Muri. Jhal means spicy and muri is puffed rice. It is a concoction of dry roasted puffed rice, fried peanuts, diced boiled potatoes, diced - onions, green chillies, cilantro and tomatoes. A little mustard oil is added for a pungent kick along with pinches of salt, black salt, cumin powder and chilli powder. Some lemon juice is added at the end.
Puffed rice and mustard oil is available in Indian grocery stores. In India, this snack is sold by vendors on roadsides and trains. It is served in newspaper cones and that authentic taste is hard to replicate at home. For a more detailed recipe click on the link below.